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Theatrics: Manto at its best

July 14, 2012

The Napa Repertory Theatre (NRT) recently staged Mantorama, an excellent tribute to Manto as a part of his centenary celebrations at the Karachi Arts Council. Performed by the alumni of National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), it was written by Khurram Ali Shafique and directed by Sunil Shankar. The play depicted many of Manto’s life events and explored his writings through his characters.

The NRT chose to portray Manto the person rather than enacting a play which culminated into a well-rounded performance. According to the director Shankar it was a deliberate attempt to choose him over his writings, “Manto’s literary work is so well known be it Hatak, Thanda Gosht, Kali Shalwar or Toba Tek Singh that we felt the best way to remember Manto was to work on an original script by Khurram Shafique that pays tribute to the person rather than his writings.

“Portraying the great writer’s life and his thought process was a daunting task,” the director admitted, adding that it was a very challenging presentation. “The biggest challenge was portraying the writer’s imaginative world of characters that comes to life on stage. In the play, Manto’s characters can be seen having a dialogue with him, and depicting the subconscious was particularly difficult.”

Mantorama started off with well-known artist Khalid Ahmed along with three Napa students — Owais Mangalwala, Nazrul Hasan and Fawad Khan — reading from Manto’s Shaheed Saz, Main Film Kyun Nahin Dekhta, Sawal Paida Hota Hai, Main Afsana Kyun Likhta Hoon and a foreword from one of his books. We would call it a very apt start since the play revived the tradition of reader’s theatre coined by Zia Mohyeddin. The trend of reciting is almost dead, and agreeing with it the director confirmed that it was definitely a conscious decision that the students should take the tradition forward with thespian Khalid Ahmed’s support.

References to Manto’s personal life, his short stories and his six trials for obscenity where he was never convicted were the premises of Mantorama. All these elements were perfectly strung together with an original script by Shafique.

Doing justice to the script was the key factor the director says, “I had to study Manto’s work and gain insight into the person, his life experiences, mannerisms, relationships and personal photographs. Our aim was to present it in a unique style, thus engaging the audience.”

What caught one’s attention the most was the live music incorporating Mirza Ghalib’s poetry. However, incorporating music in theatre can be a tricky element but in the play it worked wonderfully well and elevated the presentation, as was the case with Mirza Ghalib beautifully sung by vocalist Sara Haider. “I was very confident about our music composer Ahsan Bari and vice versa. Our aim was to create a different sound from conventional instruments such as the sarangi, percussions or the guitar used in our live orchestra. Ghalib had a big influence on Manto’s life. And adding to it was the script writer’s point of view and hence we fully supported the idea,” said Shankar.

Mantorama was not merely a play where dialogues were delivered, it had many elements of theatre presentation from music, minimalistic set design to movement, giving it a touch of being simple rather than superficial. Hence for the director it was imperative to keep it simple yet enabling the audience to connect with it, “I wanted to present something simple yet effective that would look good on stage. I could have come up with difficult moves or dialogue delivery but the main reason was our actors who are in the learning process hence lesser the pressure, the better. As for the minimalistic set, we had 37 scenes and instead of the set doing the talking we preferred that the script should speak for itself. Secondly, it is not possible to bring the bazaar of Amritsar or Manto’s home in Delhi and Lahore on stage hence we kept it suggestive. Our audience is intelligent and they can very well guess what is being portrayed in a particular scene,” said the director.

Last but not least, the cast of Mantorama was in sync with the theme of the play. Powerful rendition by the team of readers made the audience take notice and also Ishtiaq Omar who played Manto looked like the real deal courtesy costume designer Pervaiz Iqbal. Other actors such as Rauf Afridi as Ishar Singh, Zain Nazar as Hindustan, Raheel Ahmed as Madhav, Muzaina Malik as Saugandhi, Anoushka Malik as Wazir, Afreen Seher as Safia and Adnan Jaffer as Mirza Ghalib fitted their roles like the proverbial glove.

Here, Napa as an institute and the director’s hard work were both apparent. “Working with a novice cast was in itself a challenge. I do not consider myself a great actor or director as I am still in the learning process but being a trained Napa actor I had a better understanding of the difficulties that an actor faces or his excitement to perform. The actual cast of this play amounts to 48 people but we squeezed it to almost 20 as one could see that one actor was doing many roles. Nevertheless, I found the cast disciplined and hardworking,” said Shankar.